With Chinese Fashion Week rapidly becoming a formidable competitor to Paris and Milan, and figures like Peng Liyuan reaching Carla Bruni levels of icondom (minus the fur bikini), Eastern fashion is dominating conversations of style and commerce. To capitalize on this emerging popularity, The Museum of Chinese in America has focused two of its spring exhibitions towards sino-sartorial oeuvres: Front Row, which takes a look at the exponential growth of Asian-American fashion designers such as Vera Wang and Jason Wu, and Shanghai Glamour, an examination of early twentieth century clothing and culture from the “Paris of the East.”
Front Row is more indicative of the type of fashion exhibitions popular today: sleek, modern, mirrored galleries rendered in stark white, mannequins standing statuesque on catwalks, with runway videos and designer interviews interspersed throughout. Organized chromatically, rather than chronologically, it boasts a range of looks that paint an accurate portrait the diversity present in the New York fashion industry that exploded in the 1980s. Vera Wang’s exorbitant wedding gown, rendered in the traditional color worn by Chinese brides, exemplifies the stylistic, iconic, and theoretical strengths of the show. Anna Sui’s silver leather moto jacket/mini skirt combo and Yeohlee Teng’s anatomical architecture also serve as indicators of the balance between traditional Chinese aesthetics and contemporary Western vision this show straddles.
But one dress in particular epitomizes the convergence of East and West and the theoretical underpinnings of this subject matter. A navy silk tulle dress by Jason Wu, peppered with silver stars and harnessed around the sternum with bondage-esque straps, galvanizes the pursuit of the American Dream by an Asian designer and speaks perhaps to the underlying struggle and paradox it bears. Wu, famous for designing First Lady Michelle Obama’s first inauguration gown, has skyrocketed to notoriety (and wealth, no doubt) since his contribution to American history. This navy gown, from his Spring/Summer 2013 collection, shows Wu is still riding his patriotic high, paying homage to iconic Americana and the woman who helped launch his career. Yet the delicate, translucent material and restraining S&M cinctures signify both the fragility of this dream and the binding restraint that can trap and limit an individual.
Shanghai Glamour is smaller, more intimate, and, most importantly, more historical. The dresses, accessories, and print material on display indicate a shift in Chinese culture beginning in the 1910s, and positions clothing as an emblem of modernity for women at the time. From mysterious sensuality in tight-fitting qipaos to rich, cosmopolitan silk jackets, it captures a moment in time that saw rapid progress and idea-sharing in traditional costume as well as a transformation of femininity in the East.
Both exhibitions see a shift in focus, not just of MOCA as an institution, but of the way we’re broadening our perception and interaction with culture. Compare these shows with MOCA’s last garment-related exhibition in 1984, which looked at Chinese-American laundry workers — we’ve transitioned from ethnographic, historically-based shows to more conceptual, contemporary displays. Fashion is no longer viewed by curators (or the public) as cultural artifact or applied art; it’s beginning to signify transnational relations, issues of identity, and broader questions of creativity and artistic vision. This view of fashion has been on trend for a few years now (institutionally speaking), but it’s gratifying to see more non-Western designers getting this treatment.